Military Preparation p1: High &Tight by thadeusz
This story is inspired by real facts : boys, 10 graders, were accepted for a military "on-the-job-training" which consisted of letting them participate during a full week to the activities of Recruits for the French Foreign Legion, during the very first part of their training: the famous month spend in "the farm" and at the end of which these recruits become "Legionnaires" after earning their White Kepi. The end of the story is pure fiction, but in today’s France it could happen !
Since 1st grade, I had always been with my friend Ben. His complete name is Bernard Merry. I am Jacques Louvois and I was called Jack by all my friends, but not by my parents. We lived near Marseille, in France.
Ben and I were in 10th grade when the government started to be anxious about possible terrorists and when the Army started to send soldiers on the streets to protect the citizens. I don’t know if that protection was really helpful, but the Army realized that it needed more soldiers and started to make big advertisements on TV and on Facebook. They specified that you had to be at least 17 years and 6 months old to become a soldier, but they added that young boys and girls aged 16 could already try the Army in the frame of Discovery Military Preparations or PMD in French. These PMD were presented as one week holiday camps, but in fact they were conceived in order to attract new candidates to the Army.
Ben and I were going to turn 16 before summer. So we decided to spend part of our summer holiday in one of these PMD. We viewed it as a joyful adventure. In order to have the necessary information, we went to the nearest Army Recruitment and Information Center. There, we were told that there were many possibilities, including one organized by the French Foreign Legion in Aubagne, very close to our place. For us that meant spending one week in Legion uniform with what we thought would be real legionnaires. There is a magic in these words, and we spend hours trying to convince our parents to give their consent. We really wanted to wear a legionnaire uniform. At first, our parents refused but later, considering that we were both unruly long haired teenagers, they decided that it might be good to discipline us. In fact, I must confess that I was a very disobedient child and that this had very negative consequences for my studies.
So, finally our parents did give their consent, but the whole administrative process took a long time: there was a thorough medical examination for each of us, an interview with a psychologist and a security investigation. We both thought that this was special because we had chosen a Legion PMD, but I now know that this is routine for all PMDs.
Finally each of us received a letter from the Legion. They said that we were accepted and they mentioned a list of objects we should take with us. The PMD was supposed to start on a Sunday at noon: we would receive our uniforms then. It would last till the next Sunday at 5 pm. The letter also advised us to have "relatively short hair" but added that those who came with long hair would have to attach them with an elastic "for your own protection". This was precisely our case: both of us had dark brown hair floating down on our shoulders. Moreover, I had fast growing hair and hated to go to the barber.
As soon as we arrived at the gate of the barracks, a Sergeant led us to a big room where another 20 or so boys were also waiting. Each of us received a legion uniform, which was clearly a used one, Army combat boots, also old, and a new military style bush hat. This was a big disappointment for me since I had dreamed to wear the real legion green beret. Luckily, a Lieutenant arrived and told us that some of us could elect to spend their week with real new recruits in "the farm", the place where real legionnaire recruits start their instruction. The "chosen" boys could do so instead of remaining with the other ones who would be trained by reservists during their PMD. The Lieutenant mentioned only five names. Ben and I were among the "chosen". The fact that we looked much bigger than 16 was probably responsible for that choice.
When asked whether they chose the rigors of a week with real legionnaires or if they stuck to their first choice, only two boys accepted the offer for the "real legionnaire experience": Ben and I. The Lieutenant congratulated us:
"You two made the good choice, but you cannot keep your hair as long as it is now. This could be dangerous while doing real exercises. You will follow me to the regimental barber who will just give you a small trim".
Ben and I looked at each other and decided to accept this condition. We followed the Lieutenant to the barber’s room. There were several chairs, but the Lieutenant decided that, since there was only two of us, we could have our "small trim" one after the other. Ben pushed me and I found myself suddenly seated, facing a big legionnaire (I know now that he was Corporal) with a superb High and Tight. The Lieutenant told this Corporal to cut our hair to a reasonable length since we were going to the farm and observe the "New Recruits". Then the Lieutenant reassured us, and addressed himself especially to me since I was already seated:
"This Corporal has been trained to give an induction cut to the new Recruits, but he is also an excellent barber and uses wisely his scissors for the NCOs and the officers."
The Corporal caped me and started immediately after, attacking my long hairs with his scissors. I was a little bit frightened at first, but I rapidly noticed that he was not too aggressive. In fact he started to cut the sides and back very short. He then explained:
"This is the only way to avoid that your hair be tangled up in the different straps of your equipment."
He then went on cutting the hair on the top, all of the same length, but sufficiently long to satisfy boys like us: we did not want to be ridiculed by our school mates. The Corporal finished his work on me with the following comment:
"On the top of the head, you can keep it longer, it will be protected by your bush hat or by your helmet if you receive one."
I was thus ready and left the chair to Ben. I now had a better view of the situation and I could see how the Corporal was using his scissors. I could also have a closer look to his great High and Tight. In fact I regretted that I did not have a haircut like his. So while Ben’s hair was also cut I asked the Lieutenant:
"Is it impossible for me to have a real legionnaire haircut ?"
The Lieutenant asked: "Do you want the same haircut as this Corporal ?"
"Why do you want that ?"
"To have the real feel of what it is to be a legionnaire."
The Lieutenant looked at me and said:
"It is possible, but in that case it would be difficult to distinguish between you and a real Recruit. This means that there will be consequences. Are you ready to accept that ?"
"Yes, of course"
"In that case", said the Lieutenant, "I am going to ask the Colonel for his authorization."
The Lieutenant gave a short phone call, of which I could not hear the details, and came back saying:
"We are going to continue with you NOW." And the last word was more shouted rather than simply said.
The Corporal was done with Ben and the Lieutenant told another Legionnaire to bring Ben to the place where the Sergeant of our future section was waiting. He also told Ben to remain close to the Sergeant or the Corporal at all times.
He then turned to me, pushed me back in the now empty chair and told the Corporal barber:
"He wants it, he will get it. Give him a real Recruit cut. Go all the way."
Suddenly, the barber put one of his hands on me, as if to get a good hold of my whole person, and took his clippers without guard in the other hand. That was obviously more than I had bargained for, but it was obviously too late.
The Corporal, with one hand, forced me to bend my head down and with his other hand he let his clippers draw a path through my hair, from front to back. He kept doing so, with fast moves, and I could feel the clippers shearing more and more of the fleece that was ornating the top of my head. He then suddenly forced me, with the hand that held me, to turn my head on the side, and he continued mowing my poor head. He then suddenly pushed my head towards the other side and continued until he felt that he needed to push my head to the back. After a few minutes, this obviously experimented man, left me with a nearly completely bare head. I thought that he was done, but that was not the case. I could see him grabbing smaller clippers, still without guard, while keeping one hand on the top of my head. He then started to clean all the little stubbles he had left, all the little corners near my poor ears. Finally he said that he was really done. That’s when I could see for the first time what I had felt. I now had a convict’s head, completely exposed to the sun and the rain. My natural protection had completely disappeared. I wondered what my school mates would say, but I was also secretly proud to have undergone that little initiation. All that had not taken more than 5 minutes. I put my hand on the top of my head, searching for some stubbles, but everything had been shaved, to zero, "to the woods" as the Corporal said !
The Lieutenant made a sign which clearly meant "stand up" and added:
"Now you follow me, we are going to give you the proper uniform, as decided by the Colonel."
"But I am already in uniform."
"You are in the uniform we use for PMD trainees, but you are now going to be fully kitted as the Recruit you look like. That’s what you wanted, ‘have the real feel of what it is to be a legionnaire’. So follow me in silence."
The Lieutenant took me to the Quartermaster room. I was told to take off all my clothes and to get dressed using the uniforms that were rapidly thrown to me. From top to bottom, beret and shoes included. I was now wearing the real uniform legionnaires wear, including the green socks. I also got a ceremony uniform and a uniform for free time outside the barracks. And also a shirt with many folds, a green tie and special green epaulettes with red fringes to be worn on top of the jacket. The Lieutenant added :
"You will probably never have an opportunity to wear them, but you must have them in your bag in order to have the same weight as real legionnaires."
Finally I received the famous White Kepi. I had to try if it was the correct size, which was the case, and then I was told to put it in a plastic bag with the order: "Never touch it, it is sacred"
As far as my completely new Army boots, they were stiff as everything. The corporal Quartermaster told me in a nearly fatherly tone:
"Listen to my advice, as soon as you can, get hold of lots of grease and grease your boots inside and outside. Then do as if you wanted to break them. After that they will no longer be stiff."
The Lieutenant looked at me, dressed like a legionnaire and with a big bag full of kit on my back and an additional smaller bag in front, and concluded:
"Now you look like the real Recruit you wanted to mimic with your hair. This means that you are going to be treated exactly like a real Recruit. You are going to address me and all the chiefs according to their proper rank. UNDERSTOOD recruit ?"
"Yes, sir" was my reply.
"NO", shouted the Lieutenant, "the correct answer is ‘YES, Lieutenant’, understood ?"
Doing as he had told me to do, I shouted: "YES, Lieutenant."
"Now, your Legion ID. Take your bags and follow me, Recruit."
I was slightly anxious because I did not know what could or would happen, but I was also thrilled to be called "recruit", knowing that I was only a trainee and that it would last only a solid week.
We reached a small office and the Lieutenant told me to put on the green shirt, the green tie, the free time jacket on which he hung the badge of the training regiment. He then told me to take off my beret, and to look straight ahead while a picture was taken for my military identity card. The card was made, using a computer, in a few seconds. On it I saw my picture, looking much more serious and older than I actually was. There was also a name on it and the Lieutenant explained:
"Like all Recruits, you get a new name. You are no longer Jacques Louvois, but Joseph Lebon. Your matricule number is 204.563 and you better memorize NOW your name and your matricule since you are going to have to use them frequently, and NOT your old name. UNDERSTOOD?"
"YES, Lieutenant" was the reply, but I started to feel less joyful than at the start.
"Here, you are 18 here and you come from Montreal, Quebec. You are French speaking. Forget all the rest."
I now felt very uncomfortable but I did not know what I could do.
The Lieutenant went on:
"Take your bags, Recruit LEBON and march behind me. I will lead you to the section"
I followed the Lieutenant to the place where the other Recruits of his section were waiting. We were all told to prepare our bed. Luckily a big Brazilian, Joao De Sousa, showed me how to make my bed in "the military way" before the Sergeant and the Corporal could notice that I was not ready.
We had been placed in three rooms, each of them full with 6 double bunks, thus 12 beds. This was more than enough for 30 Recruits or so. Ben was not in the same room as I and I wondered what had happened to him and which uniform he was wearing.
I spent the evening with the Recruits in my room. I was lucky enough to get hold of a pot of grease and I did with my boots what I had been told to do. It changed indeed everything and my boots were now nearly comfortable.
The next day, very early, we were woken up very early, at about 4 am and the order came from the Sergeant:
"Room in perfect order. Bags completely in order. Gather in front of this barrack within 10 minutes."
When we were all down and in acceptable order, the Sergeant shouted "Fall In" and I imitated the movements of the Recruits who had already spent several days in the barracks for "selection". The Sergeant then turned to the Lieutenant and shouted:
"First section reporting. 31 Recruits and one single trainee present with a Corporal and a Sergeant. Ready for the farm, Sir. At your command, Lieutenant."
The Lieutenant looked at us and then simply said: "Move"
The Sergeant and the Corporal told us to board a bus, then a train to Castelnaudary, far from the place where my PMD was supposed to take place. Ben and I were in totally different places and could not communicate. Once in Castelnaudary, we were told to board the back of a big truck and to sit there with our bags. Each Recruit had his two bags close to him and we remained silent. Ben sat with the Lieutenant in the front of the truck, next to the driver. The Sergeant and the Corporal were in the back, guarding the entrance, ready to stop those of us who wanted to quit to do so.
We finally reached a small building without any comfort. There was a big room with metallic military beds, uncomfortable beds, and another one with tables and chairs. The Lieutenant assigned me to the last bunk on one side while Ben remained at the opposite end, near the Sergeant, on a rather comfortable bed. As a consequence, I could not speak with him at night and it was difficult for me to speak with him at any other moment since I was really treated like a real Recruit: the Lieutenant had not told the Sergeant nor the Corporal that I was in fact a trainee. The only places where I could see Ben, if not speak with him, was the room with the tables where we had all our meals and our French lessons, since most of the Recruits did not speak French.
In the beginning, I considered all that as a big game and was constantly joyful. The Corporal had the impression that I was making fun of him and he started to punish me often and seriously, for good or bad reasons. During the second day, I realized that if I wanted to survive this PMD till the end, I had to take it seriously, at least as seriously as the real Recruits. From far I could see that this was not the case for Ben !
My bed was against the wall of the room, next to it was Joao de Sousa and next to him was a huge Recruit named Pierre Dufraisne. Pierre was French speaking and served as partner for Joao: Pierre was supposed to help Joao learn French rapidly. That had also a consequence: whenever Joao made a mistake, he was punished and Pierre too.
On the third day, I had decided to behave as a serious Recruit since that was the best way "to feel how it was" and it was also a good way to avoid being punished. During the morning French lesson, Joao made a dreadful mistake and was punished: he had to do 50 push-ups. Pierre, for not helping Joao was told to do the some. He grumbled that it was unfair and was immediately told to do 50 additional push-ups ! Which made a total of 100, which he did but not gracefully. He kept grumbling, but discretely. That evening, Pierre was on guard. He got a Famas, the French rifle, and was told to spend the night guarding the camp … in the middle of nowhere. The next morning, Pierre was gone: he had deserted with his Famas.
Two days later, Pierre was found and arrested. He came back to the camp telling the Lieutenant that "he had lost his way". The Lieutenant told him to go with the Corporal to a secluded place behind the building, and told all of us Recruits (me included) to go and look. Pierre got a serious beating. He was then chained and sent by jeep to the main barrack in Castel. The Lieutenant told us:
"Pierre has deserted and you have seen what he got immediately. He will now spend 40 days in the Legion brig, doing menial tasks and all kind of painful exercises. He is told that, if he behaves well, he will come back here after his 40 days. In fact, he will be expelled from the Legion and sent to court. Since he deserted with a rifle, he will probably be sentenced to several years in prison."
The Lieutenant then turned towards me and added:
"Lebon, you are also French speaking and de Sousa has no partner anymore. You are as of now Joao’s partner. Try to do better than Pierre."
And that responsibility, plus the punishments that will go with it, made me feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless I liked Joao, who looked like a giant and who had always helped me avoiding being punished by the Corporal. So I decided to try to help him: I had realized that this would be the best way to avoid a punishment for him … and for me. We had a French lesson and I seriously worked with Joao and the Sergeant observed that and mentioned it to the Corporal. This one could not resist and came to me saying:
"Starting to take your legionnaire’s life seriously, Lebon ?"
"Good Lebon, continue !"
In fact after these days with the Recruits, I was starting to get really used to the disciplined life the chiefs imposed on us. Getting used to make my bed perfectly but very rapidly in the morning, getting used to silly things like putting my beret on my head as soon as I was out of the building and putting it in my trousers pocket as soon as I entered the building. I was also used now to salute each chief as soon as I saw him, used also to introduce myself by my matricule number and to answer to my Legion name "Joseph Lebon". I also got used to sing "Le boudin", standing in front of my plate before every meal and I was rapidly learning, with the others, the legionnaire honor code.
It is that evening, at meal, that I noticed the absence of Ben. I managed to get a "Lieutenant-report" and could then ask him, politely:
"Lieutenant, what happened to my friend Ben ?"
"Recruit Lebon, your friend’s week with the Legion came to an end this morning and he has been brought back to the barracks in order to go back to his civilian holidays."
"But, Lieutenant, in that case, my week with the Legion is also over. Why am I still here ?"
"You are Recruit Lebon, and I am authorized to keep you here … during a certain time."
"But I don’t want to be a legionnaire"
"You wanted to ‘feel what the legionnaire’s life was’. Well you got what you asked for and you are going to stay here as long as I want it."
"Lieutenant, I want to go home."
"Lebon, that is no longer possible. Going away would be deserting and you know now what happens to deserters. STOP immediately this stupid discussion and go back to your duty, Recruit."
"But, Lieutenant, I am not a Recruit."
"That’s enough. For lack of respect to your officer you will give me 15 minutes of Croatian Bridge while singing the Boudin. But before that the Corporal will shave your head completely. DISMISS."
I was stuck, and I knew it. I had been licked ! I was far from everything, without any mean to communicate with my parents. I was not even Jacques Louvois anymore, but only Joseph Lebon. The Corporal came and got hold of me. He ordered me to kneel in front of him and gave me a thorough head shave, adding:
"This way you will feel better the seriousness of your punishment."
He then made me start my 15 minutes. I had seen others punished that way. It was one of the most serious punishment you could dream of: the punished guy had to make a sort of bridge with his body, using as only pillars his naked head and his two feet. The feet had to be far from each other and the hands had to be kept together in the back. The Corporal showed me a place in front of the building, in the gravel and simply said:
I did as I had been told and it hurt dreadfully. I still remember that now. While doing this dreadful Croatian Bridge, I bit on my lips and I sang "Le Boudin" repeatedly as I had been told. After that I was not going to contradict any of the chiefs anymore. I had really become Recruit Lebon and the Corporal told me:
"You did it well, like the good recruit you usually are. We might be able to do something with you, Lebon."
I said nothing, but I felt dreadful, a 16 year old lost without hope in a world of legionnaires. I tried to behave normally, but at night, on my miserable bunk, I could not avoid crying. I tried to do it silently, feeling miserable, but Joao heard me. He was the closest to me and Pierre was no longer in the neighbourhood. Joao asked me why I cried, and I told him my whole story. I told him that I simply wanted to do a Military Preparation in the Legion and feel how the legionnaire’s life really was. I added:
"Now I am stuck here. I believe they will keep me for the full five years. With the Corporal keeping punishing me."
But Joao replied kindly, in his not very good French. He reminded me that we were partners now and that he was here to help me with Legion life as much as I was here to help him in French. He also added that since I had not signed a real contract, he was convinced that the legion would not keep me. Finally he suggested that I definitely started to take this training seriously, as I had already done, and proved to the Corporal, who did not know my real age, that I could behave like a man.
After that, I slept peacefully and I decided to start to train earnestly as if I had really signed a legionnaire’s contract. Training went on and I carefully helped Joao in French, he helped me in other domains and discretely sustained my morale, as I sustained his whenever he got in trouble. The Sergeant said that we had become twins and the Corporal liked now my way of training. Once the Corporal even said that if I kept doing that well, I would be selected at the end of instruction as "fut fut" or "assistant corporal", which meant that according to him I would become Corporal very rapidly. But he did not know the whole truth !
We trained more and more and tried to get ready for the big event: the White Kepi March. This was a long walk of 60 km to be done with all our kit and the Famas we had received now. This meant carrying more than 30 kilos during the march. The idea was to do 30 km during the first day, then have a few hours rest under tents (which we had carried during the march) and then the finishing 30 km. Those who succeeded (and most did) got the right to wear their famous White Képi and to bear the title of "Légionnaire" instead of "Recruit". It was gruesome, but I felt strong and ready to carry my load.
I did not know when my adventure would stop. In fact, I did not know if my adventure would ever stop: I was now completely transformed and the unruly teen Jacques Louvois had been was now the disciplined Recruit Joseph Lebon. I really wanted to deserve the title of "Legionnaire".
The evening before leaving for this Kepi Blanc March, the Corporal told me to go in a little room where the Lieutenant was waiting for me. I went there immediately and introduced me according to Legion rules, despite the fact that the Lieutenant knew me well: this presentation was compulsory every time a Recruit, or even a simple Legionnaire, met his chiefs. So I first saluted, took my beret off and said without any hesitation:
"Recruit Lebon, Matricule 204.563, reporting as requested. At your orders, Lieutenant."
"Young man, you know very well that you are not a real Recruit. It is time now to put a stop to this very long Military Preparation. You are not strong enough for the Kepi Blanc March."
"Lieutenant, permission to speak ?"
"Speak, young man and don’t overdo your role as Recruit."
"Lieutenant, I trained with the others. I feel I can do this march since we have already trained during several marches and I never failed any of these hikings."
"Those were only short 10 km marches, without most of your kit."
"Lieutenant, I have now good friends among the other Recruits and I feel I am nearly one of them. I am bigger than some of them and I am strong. Please let me do this march."
"OK Lebon. You want it, you will have it. If you fail, you will fail your whole Military Preparation which was a success until now. But if you succeed, you will know that whatever happens was YOUR choice. Now, get another perfect head shave and get some rest. DISMISS."
I put my beret on my head, saluted my officer and made what I think was a perfect about-face before going out. Joao asked me what had happened and I told him the truth. He replied that I was a fool, I had to stop one day and this was the best moment. When I told him that I really wanted to feel what a legionnaire’s life was, he shrugged his shoulders and spoke no more.
I asked the Corporal to shave my head completely "for the Kepi Blanc March" but he refused. I got some food with the others and I went to bed where I slept wonderfully well.
The next morning we were woken up earlier than the other days. The Corporal and the Sergeant inspected our bags to be sure that we had our complete kit, as if we were going on a mission. On top of that, each of us received a half tent to be combined with that of another Recruit in order to form the evening camp: I was to share my tent with Joao as could be expected. Finally, each of us had to carry, on his neck, his rifle, a Famas, weighting 3.5 kilos.
We formed a column and started walking while singing. The singing did not last long: it was too tiring. After a few hours, the Lieutenant offered us a short rest. I wanted to take off my rangers, but Joao showed me the blisters on one of our comrades feet. He added:
"Don’t take your shoes off, you will never be able to put them back on again."
I followed his instructions : he had been Sergeant in the Brazilian Army !
We had another rest for our meal, a field ration and went on during long hours. My kit was becoming heavier, but I went on just in front of Joao. Then came the night rest. We first had to mount our tents, forming a perfect square, and then we were free to eat another ration and to sing. I decided early that I wanted to sleep and I did so with my clothes and my rangers. The next morning, we were again woken up early for a form of breakfast. I felt wonderfully well and ready for my last day with the group.
The second day was more eventful than foreseen. One of our comrades, Pavel, was not able to carry his bags. Joao and me took them: Joao took the big bag and I took the small one and his Famas. The Lieutenant interfered saying that it would be OK if Pavel kept walking, with our help, but with his Famas. So Joao and me rearranged our loads so that each would have about the same load. The Lieutenant looked at me and said nothing. Some of our comrades looked exhausted but they kept walking, but not in a very military way.
Finally, we reached the aim. We had all walked 60 km, Pavel included ! For the last kilometer, Pavel had taken his bags back. We spontaneously decided to reorganize our group and to march in step, proudly, as the real legionnaires we were about to become.
We reached a big meadow. The Lieutenant told all of us that we had succeeded. We were all exuberant, super enthusiastic and really overwhelmed with joy because we had all done it. In the center of the meadow, there was a big table and on it drinks for all of us. We had a few minutes rest, without our bags, to drink and rejoice. The Lieutenant told us then to take our bags and to climb on the back of two military trucks waiting for us. The trucks brought us back to the barracks, in Castelnaudary where we were assigned to rooms, much more comfortable than our bunks in "the farm". Finally we had a good meal, not comparable to the minimal meals we had while we were at the farm. The most important part was that we had no chores on this marvelous evening. I now felt really at home with the other Recruits, one among the others, really at my place. They were no longer the Recruits while I was the Boy: we were all comrades !
The Sergeant told us then that the following morning, immediately after roll call, we would get our White Kepis. There would be a formal ceremony marking the fact that we would no longer be Recruits but Legionnaires. We were thus told to put on our Parade Uniform. I was thus going to be able to wear it at least once.
I soon realized that the Parade Uniform, which had attracted me to the Legion, was nice but not very comfortable. It was of course khaki, which was OK for me. It consisted of trousers which had to be worn with a marked crease remaining straight and falling on the center of each of the super shining ranger provided with new laces. The vest was a sort of blouse with relatively sleeves provided with something thick that made it very tight on the wrists. It was worn on top of the green shirt with many folds and with the green tie. This blouse was attached to the waist by a long and wide blue belt: we had to be two to roll and attach it correctly. On top of it, we had our nearly rigid waist belt. There were no pockets and we were told to put our handkerchief, if any, in our sleeves. The whole uniform was heavy, hot and moreover stiff, which helped keeping all the creases in the right place. The trousers were very tight which made any salient part of our anatomy very visible. The sleeves were rather wide, but very tight at the wrists. On the shoulders, there were the huge green epaulettes with red fringes at the end: red and green the colours of the Legion. On the shoulders and on the wrists, we had copper buttons which had to be super shiny.
I spent, and so did my comrades, most of the night cleaning and polishing my rangers, brushing my Parade Uniform and ironing my shirt: the folds had to respect precise dimensions and we all knew that the next morning a master Corporal would inspect our shirts and measure the precise size of our folds. Mistakes were not tolerated.
In order to be really elegant, since we would be bareheaded until we had our White Kepi, we all decided to shave our heads. Since induction, all hairs had grown a lot and mine had been shaved by the Corporal for the last time just before I had to perform that damned Croatian Bridge: that was ages ago. Now, clippers appeared from nowhere and Joao shaved my head. He did it in a very special way for this very special day: he first cleaned completely the sides and the back, using the clippers without guard and a razor. He thus marked a neat line above which he used the clippers with a very short guard, which left my head nearly bald but not completely deprived of hair. I did the same for him, following carefully his instructions. We did all that in the bathroom to have it easier to clean the place which the Sergeant wanted "Nickel clean", which for him meant "more spotless than spotless". All our comrades imitated us.
Finally, we were ready and the big moment arrived. We all left our rooms in parade Uniform and formed as a unit on the Central Square of the barracks. We had our White Kepi for the first time without plastic in our right hand. My size, compared to that of my comrades, made me stand in the center of the first row. There was a table with drinks on the side.
Suddenly the Lieutenant arrived and saw me. He immediately said:
"Lebon, get out of this formation and stand on the side, in front of the table." Obediently, I left the group and went to the side of the square where I took the position of attention. Since it was an order, I accepted the situation, I understood that there had to be a difference between the real legionnaires and me, but I did not like it. I had understood that my Legion adventure was now finished.
The lieutenant then added:
"Place that White Kepi on that table in the back and put your green beret on your head."
That was adding insult to injury: the only Recruits who must wear the green beret while their comrades receive their White Kepi are recruits who failed to finish the big White Kepi march, which was not my case, but I had left my beret in my cupboard, like all my comrades, so I asked the Lieutenant:
"Lieutenant, since I have no pockets I left my beret in my cupboard. Should I leave the formation and go and fetch it now, Lieutenant ?"
The Lieutenant did not have enough time to react: the Colonel had arrived. The Colonel was a fine man who immediately saw me, in Parade Uniform but out of the formation: this was an abnormal situation, so he asked the Sergeant while pointing his finger towards me:
"Sergeant, is this Recruit punished ?"
"Did he behave badly at the farm, was he punished there ?"
"No Colonel, he was only punished once during the first week and then he behaved very well, one of the best Recruits."
"Sergeant, did he fail to finish the White Kepi March ?"
"No Colonel, he and another Recruit succeeded even to help another Recruit who otherwise would not have finished the march."
The Colonel was obviously irritated and shouted:
"Why then is he not in the formation ?"
This time, the Lieutenant decided to answer:
"Colonel, this man is not a real recruit. He is only 16. He is the young boy you authorized to stay during a full month with the real Recruits. I thought that he should not stay with the others while they get the White Kepi."
"So you thought ! And his Legion name is ?"
"Joseph Lebon, Colonel, as you authorized it."
"That’s correct Lieutenant. But this boy did everything the Recruits did, so I’ll take another decision."
The Colonel then turned himself towards me and said:
"Recruit Lebon, go that empty place in the formation with your White Kepi in your right hand, on the double, and stand there with the other Recruits."
I quickly obeyed his orders.
The Colonel made a little speech and then gave the ritual order: "Put on your White Kepi" and we all put our White Kepi on our head: we were now legionnaires. I knew what was going to happen next: the Colonel would call the best among us, Joao I assumed, and tell him to step forward in order to recite the Legion honor code. But the Colonel started another short and improvised speech:
"You are now all legionnaires, and you earned that title. But there is one man among you who worked harder than the others. He is maybe not the best new legionnaire, but he is only 16 and he helped one of you to finish the White Kepi March."
Joao had, in a low voice, told me: "Get ready comrade".
The Colonel then called:
"Legionnaire Lebon, step forward and recite the Honor Code."
As an automaton, I moved 10 steps forward, saluted the Colonel and the Lieutenant and started the recitation. All my comrades followed. When I was done, I saluted again and went back to my place. The Colonel then pinned on each of us, me included, the insignia of our regiment, the training regiment.
The Colonel then gave the last order:
"DISBAND and get a well deserved drink."
All my comrades came towards me and hugged me. Joao told me that when the Lieutenant had singled me out, he felt very sorry for me but could not do anything. So, he was really pleased that I had been chosen to say the Honor Code in his place. That’s how I learned that he had been chosen before by the Lieutenant.
We went to the table. Some civilians had observed the ceremony, they were friends of new legionnaires or simply residents of the town where we were. As far as I was concerned, I was proud as everything, happy as everything even if my parents did not show up.
After that, we had "Quartier Libres", free time during three hours. We changed into our "going out" uniform, a simple military uniform, khaki, to be worn with plain shoes and the unavoidable shirt with many folds and green tie. Our socks were also green. After getting changed we went to a Master Corporal who inspected each of us in details before giving him his "exit card". I got mine immediately, some comrades had to check their uniform before being accepted. My "exit card" had the same picture as my Military Identity Card, same name and Matricule, plus the mention "This legionnaire is authorized to be outside the barracks compound". We knew that card could be requested at any moment by the Military Police.
Joao took me with him and we went to a cybercafe. He tried to join his parents and his loved one and was successful. I joined my parents by phone and told them that I had received my White Kepi, but I only got as answer: "We hope that you behave better now and are more disciplined." And that was all I could get.
Joao took me further to a real bar, at least that’s what he told me. There I got a good drink and that’s where I met a girl. My first girl as soldier. I realized that it was not only a bar, but at 16 I had had my first woman and that finished to make my day unforgettable.
When we came back to the barracks, I immediately changed into battle dress, hoping that my stay with the legionnaires could continue. The Lieutenant called me and asked me:
"Lebon, do you regret now asking to have the real feel of what it is to be a legionnaire ?"
"Do you want more of it ?"
"In that case you are on guard duty tomorrow."
Guard duty is a boring activity, especially when you have received you White Kepi. In the legion, the guard period starts at 6 am end ends at 6 am the next day. During this period of 24 hours, the legionnaire (or recruit) on guard duty has to stand in front of a gate during 2 hours, he then has 2 hours to eat and 2 more hours to rest and sleep. I had done it at the farm without real problem, but now that I had my White Kepi, I had to stand guard in Parade Uniform. This meant that even when I would have time to rest or eat, I would have to take great care of my position in order to avoid any stain or wrong fold on my uniform. Nevertheless, it was an order and I had been drilled to obey first and think after. So, coming back from my trip in town, I gave back my "exit card" and started immediately to wash and iron my uniform. I also had to be present for the roll call and to participate to the chores. This means that I did not sleep at all that night.
During guard duty, I had to stand next to the gate, open it when ordered to do so and from time to time, salute an officer. This gave me plenty of time to think about my new life and putting all the elements together, I decided that I really liked being a legionnaire and that I did not mind remaining one as long as they would let me do so.
When I came off guard, I wanted to rest and sleep. Unluckily for me, the Sergeant came with a new order:
"Lebon, kitchen duty today on top of your other chores."
That was less funny. I knew I would have to clean the kitchen in such a way that it would be perfectly clean. It was not usual to give that order to a legionnaire coming out of guard, but it was an order so I got ready to obey it immediately after lunch.
During my cleaning chore in the kitchen, the cook, who was a Master Sergeant, looked at me and told me that I was doing well. That was great. He then added:
"Tomorrow morning, be back here early enough: you are going to peel the potatoes for the regiment."
Once again, it was an order and I started realizing that a legionnaire’s life was maybe not always funny ! But I obeyed without discussion.
When I came out of this potatoes chore, the Lieutenant was there and asked me once more:
"Lebon, are you sure that you don’t regret asking to have the real feel of what it is to be a legionnaire?"
"NO Lieutenant, I don’t regret it" was my answer.
"Why, Lebon ? You look exhausted!"
"Lieutenant, because of the comradery and because of the White Kepi."
"You accept to be exhausted because of a hat ?"
"NO Lieutenant. I accept because it the symbols of all the efforts I succeeded to do."
"Lebon, you are a good man. You are only 16 but later you might become a good soldier if you so decide. I give you now free time inside the barracks until this evening. You have proved with this guard duty and the other special chores that you are now a disciplined legionnaire despite your tender age. Go now, you will resume your normal duties when you have had some rest."
I went to my room and fell on my bed. I stayed there until the evening roll call and I resumed then my duties as "young legionnaire". This lasted several weeks. The sergeant told us one day that we had to get our bags ready because we were leaving the barracks the next morning for another place where we would be staying under tents during two weeks. I started doing the same preparations as my comrades: everybody had forgotten, me included, that I was not a "real" legionnaire. Suddenly the Lieutenant arrived and told me:
"Lebon, get ready and go immediately to the Colonel’s office"
I put on my "going out" uniform, as required by the Legion rules and my White Kepi. When I entered the Colonel’s office, I saluted him, took off my Kepi and introduced me as imposed by the rules:
"Legionnaire Lebon Joseph, Matricule 204.563, 1 month and 3 weeks of service, 2nd section 1st company, AT YOUR COMMAND COLONEL", the last words were shouted as required.
"At ease" was the Colonel’s reply. He then looked at me and continued:
"We both know that you are in fact Jacques Louvois, aged 16. You are a schoolboy and not a soldier. You came here for a one week military preparation with a friend. You were both unruly teens, that’s what your parents told me. Your friend did not stand this life during more than the minimum time. You did something special: when you were sent to the barber because your hair was really too long, you asked the barber to have ‘a real legionnaire haircut’ like his and you explained to the Lieutenant that you wanted ‘to have the real feel of what it is to be a legionnaire’. That’s when I decided with your parents to let you simmer longer than expected. But you did not ask to be sent home, you did not abandon. In the end you really proved that you were worthy of the title of ‘ legionnaire’. But enough is enough. Do you regret your time here, Jacques ?"
I was astonished, I had nearly forgotten my real name but I answered:
"No Colonel, and I would like to stay. For five years."
"That is not possible Jacques, and you know it. But you are no longer an unruly teen, you are a real disciplined man. Go back to school, get your high school diploma. Then, if you so decide, you will be able to come back to the Legion. But I think that it would be better if you kept studying and tried to be accepted in an officer school. You can do it. The report I am going to write will help you.
Now, go back to your comrades and say goodbye to them, I know you have good friends in your section. You have one more night to spend as legionnaire Lebon, tomorrow morning they will leave for another camp and you will be reunited with your proud parents. You will wear civilian clothes, but you can keep the White Kepi and the title you earned here. DISMISS."
I put on my White Kepi, saluted, made an about turn and left. I was half happy because of the good words of the Colonel, and half sad because I had to leave. So, I did something special: I went to the barber and asked him to give me a real legionnaire haircut given by a professional. He smiled, caped me and took his clippers. He asked me:
"Lebon, do you want an induction cut or a haircut you can go to town with ?"
"Corporal, give me an induction cut, my last haircut here", and I told him that I was sent home "as a kid".
The barber was great, he did not give me an induction cut but he simply made it a zero cut on the sides and back. He took great care to push my head in all possible directions in order to let my ears be completely free of hair. He also made a straight line, like the one Joao had tried to make when we received our White Kepis, but much neater. He finally put a good guard leaving several millimeters on the top of my head, forming the High and Tight I had wanted at the start. He then told me:
"Lebon, I think that’s what you wanted on your first day here, but you got better and now you are a legionnaire for ever, whether you leave us or not. This haircut will be for free: it is my parting present".
After that, I spend a wonderful evening in the company bar with my comrades. My cupboard was inspected by the Sergeant who gave me 20 push-ups "as last souvenir" and I tried desperately to sleep, knowing my comrades had to rise early for their long trip. The next day, I said a last goodbye to the men who had been my only friends during 7 challenging weeks. The Lieutenant and Sergeant congratulated me once more, saying that they expected to see me back "sooner or later". I then put on the clothes I had when I arrived and I joined my parents, showing them my precious White Kepi.